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An effective layering system is essential for maximising your safety, warmth and comfort outdoors. In this article, we'll give you an overview of layering fundamentals and guide you through the items you need to develop your own layering system for hiking, camping and exploring in the wild.
When you're heading into the great outdoors, you should always be prepared for the full spectrum of weather conditions. Even if it's warm and sunny when you head off, the weather in the wilderness can change suddenly and catch you off-guard. Whether you're hunting, hiking, or working on the land, a layering system will ensure you're prepared for whatever the weather throws at you. It's a simple, but highly effective way of layering clothing that allows you to regulate your temperature and comfort level on the go. It sounds simple, but failing to layer clothes correctly (or not taking the correct layers) is one of the major factors that contributes to people getting into trouble in the outdoors. An effective layering system is made up of three main layers:
Base layer: also known as a "next to skin" layer. This is for wicking sweat off your skin.
Middle layer: this is for insulation and protection from the wind and cold.
Outer layer: this is to shield you from wind, rain, and snow and can provide added insulation.
You should take all three layers into the outdoors, even if you don't think you'll need them. It's always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. OK, let's build a solid layering system from the base to the outer.
The base layer is your next-to-skin layer. In New Zealand, it's sometimes called a "thermal" or "polyprop", depending on the material used. The main job of a base layer is to take your sweat away from your skin, which is known as wicking. This helps keep your skin dry, which is important for your comfort and well-being outdoors. If the temperature drops, having wet skin or a wet t-shirt will make you feel much colder, much faster. This is why wearing a base layer with wicking properties is important. A good base layer is also your first layer of insulation. It's better to go with a slightly thicker, warmer base layer in the winter, whereas in the summer, you'll want to go as lightweight as possible. A good base layer should also be comfortable and functional. It's the layer you will wear all day, so you don't want to feel constricted. While a classic cotton t-shirt is technically a base layer, it doesn't have the wicking, breathability and insulation performance you need outdoors.
Base layers commonly fall into two categories: Synthetic and natural. Both types of material can provide excellent wicking and insulation, but can vary a lot when it comes to durability and performance.
Synthetic materials include polyester, polypropylene (where the word "polypro" comes from), nylon, rayon or a blend of several different materials. Synthetics have become more advanced over time and provide good wicking and reasonable warmth. They're generally more durable than natural materials (more on that below). Synthetic base layers also tend to be more affordable, which is a major reason why they're so popular.
Merino wool is the most common natural material used in base layers. It's world-renowned for its natural wicking, insulating and anti-odour properties. It's almost like it was created by nature especially for outdoors clothing. However, the one downside of 100% merino is it's not very durable. It can wear out under the weight of a heavy pack and get snagged on branches in the bush. While merino wool is an amazing product, it may not be durable enough for serious hunters and adventurers.
Hybrid base layers combine synthetic and natural materials to offer the best of both worlds. This is something our engineering team has been focussed on at Bushbuck. By blending merino wool with Cordura® nylon for our Combat Merino range, we've created a product that has many of the same qualities of merino wool while being extremely durable. Our Apex base layer range is made from a polyester material infused with natural bamboo charcoal to offer enhanced wicking and breathability in hot weather. Hybrid base layer materials are becoming more common and can provide better all-round performance.
The base layer weight you use will change with the seasons and weather conditions. Base layers typically come in three weight categories - lightweight, mid-weight and heavyweight. Generally, heavier materials provide more insulation, however you need to make sure you're comparing apples with apples. A mid-weight merino top may perform better than a heavyweight synthetic, for example. Base layer weights are usually presented as GSM (grams per square metre). For example, our Combat Merino Tee is 160gsm and the Combat Merino Hood is 200gsm.
The classic t-shirt remains the most common base layer style. But these days you can also get long-sleeve base layers, half-zips, quarter-zips, hoodies and more. Boxer shorts and leggings are also popular base layers for the bottom half of your body. The base layer style you use really comes down to personal preference, the season and weather conditions. For example, a base layer with a hood can provide extra insulation if the temperature suddenly drops while a half-zip allows you to quickly offload excess heat when the going gets tough. Having a t-shirt for the summer and a long-sleeve option for the winter is a good idea.
The mid-layer is your second layer of clothing. Its main job is to keep your core warm and provide protection from the wind. In some cases, a mid-layer can also be water-resistant. You won't always need a mid-layer in warmer weather, but it's still a good idea to have one stashed in your pack in case the weather changes or for wearing in the evening at the hut or campsite. There is a massive range of mid-layer clothing available, so let's take a look at your options.
The materials used in mid-layers these days are almost limitless. However, like base layers above, most mid-layers fall into three categories: Synthetic, natural and hybrid.
Polyester fleece: Polyester fleece has been one of the most popular mid-layer materials since the 1990s. It's extremely warm, breathable, moisture-resistant, and quick-drying. However, the one downside of fleece is it's not very windproof. Polyester soft shell: Soft shell jackets or pullovers are also usually made from a polyester material. There's been a lot of innovation in this space to achieve optimal warmth and breathability as well as windproof performance. Soft shells often use a blend of different types of polyester and may also include other materials to provide more flexibility and durability. For example, they may have a fleece inner with a windproof membrane face fabric and nylon patches in high-wear areas. Bushbuck's WindArc Technology, which is used in our Frontier Pullover and Bush Shirt range, is a good example of this type of innovation. Some soft shells are also water-resistant. Down jacket: Down insulated jackets are also a popular mid-layer. Down offers incredible warmth-to-weight ratio and it packs down nice and compact. Typically, you'd want a more lightweight down jacket for a mid-layer. A thick, heavy down jacket is more suitable as an outer layer in dry conditions. We recommend only using down that meets the Responsible Down Standard (RDS).
Merino wool: The most popular, high-performance, natural mid-layer fabric is merino wool. It's extremely warm, breathable and odour-resistant. However, it's not fully windproof and lacks durability. Merino's strengths certainly outweigh its shortcomings and it remains one of the best options for a mid-layer.
You can get mid-layers that are made from a hybrid of synthetic materials, as described above, but you can also get mid-layers that are made from a hybrid of natural and synthetic materials. The Bushbuck Combat Merino Hood, which blends merino wool with durable nylon, is a good example of this. It can be worn on its own as a base layer in cool weather, but can also double as a lightweight mid-layer.
Choosing the right weight for your mid-layer is really important as it can be a fine line between overheating and not being warm enough. Obviously, a thicker, heavier mid-layer is better in winter while a thinner, lightweight mid-layer will suffice in summer. If you want to get the most out of your mid-layer, go for one that has a zip and hood. This will allow you to open the zip if you get too hot, or zip it right up and pull on the hood if you feel too cold.
Mid-layers come in many different shapes and styles - from the standard long-sleeve pullover to a full-zip hooded jackets and everything in between. The main things to consider when choosing a mid-layer style are the weather conditions you'll be exposed to and your level of physical exertion. If you're going on a serious hike in the mountains in mid-Spring, a thick, heavy mid-layer will likely be too much. Whereas, if you're going for a leisurely bush walk in early winter it might be just right. You also want to consider versatility. Having a mid-layer with zips, hood and a windproof membrane will give you much more versatility than a standard pullover.
The outer layer is your last line of defence when the weather packs in. Its job is to keep you dry, warm and protect you from the wind. A good quality waterproof outer layer is absolutely essential when heading into the wilderness and working in the outdoors. If your outer layer isn't doing its job properly it prevents your other layers from doing their jobs, too. When people think of an outer layer, they typically think of a waterproof jacket. But there are so many different types of waterproof jackets that it can hard to know where to start. You'll be the best judge of what kind of outer layer you need. You'll know if your body tends to run hot or cold, the weather conditions you'll be exposed to, and your general level of exertion.
Almost all waterproof jackets are made with a multi-layer membrane that stops water from getting in but allows the fabric to "breathe" and let moisture out. These materials will have different waterproof ratings depending on the construction of the membrane. You can learn all about waterproof ratings in this article. Brands often have their own trademarked versions of waterproof materials. For example, Bushbuck uses StormArc Technology. Some outer layers will include insulation, which is usually synthetic or treated hydrophobic down. The main things to consider when choosing an outer layer are the waterproof rating and whether the seams are stitched or sealed. Sealed seams provide superior waterproof performance.
Waterproof jackets come in a wide range of weights which are designed for different purposes. Lightweight outer layers: A lightweight waterproof shell is a great option for stuffing in the pack, especially if you have a warm baselayer and mid-layer. The Bushbuck Stowlite Jacket, for example, weighs only 187g (size medium) and packs down into a compact size while still having a 20,000mm waterproof rating. The one downside is it won't provide much insulation in freezing weather. Mid-weight outer layers: A mid-weight outer layer is a good compromise and should perform all year round if you're layering effectively. The heavier outer layer will provide more protection from the wind and cold. Something like the Bushbuck Defender Jacket, which weight 1.1kg (size medium), is a good example of a mid-weight jacket. Heavyweight outer layers: A heavy-duty outer layer may be needed if you're going to encounter extreme weather - heavy rain, snow, high winds, sub-zero temperatures. The downside is they are heavy to carry in your pack and take up a lot of room. They may be more suitable for farming, working outdoors, and standing on the sideline at a rugby game. Our Typhoon Jacket weights 1.5kg (size medium), but it provides incredible protection from the elements. Insulation can also add weight and warmth to a jacket. The Bushbuck Igloo Waterproof Puffer is an innovative example of an extremely warm and fully waterproof outer layer. It's a great option if you're expecting seriously cold temperatures.
Most waterproof outer layers have a similar style - a hooded jacket that reaches just below the waist. However, they all fit and perform differently. You'll want to look for an adjustable hood, velcro wrist straps, extra durability in high-use areas, pockets, and overall comfort. Some outer layers, such as the Bushbuck Typhoon, have added length to cover the bum and upper legs. Style comes down to personal preference, but features and performance are what will keep you safe and comfortable in bad weather. Pants: Pants are also an important part of a complete layering system. Pants are a good idea if you're walking through thick brush or crawling around on your hands and knees. Pants can also prevent your boots from filling with water in heavy rain and protect those pins from the cold. Check out the Bushbuck Venture 2.0 Pants for a good example of all-round outdoors pants.
Making sure you have an effective layering system can be the difference between a terrible day and an amazing day in the outdoors. And on many occasions, having the correct layers has saved lives. Having your own layering system allows you to be adaptable, regulate your temperature and maximise your comfort. It's highly recommended that you start investing in good quality outdoors gear so you're prepared for whatever comes your way in the outdoors.
Jonathan Carson is a Content Writer and Copywriter at Bushbuck. He's a wordsmith who handles most of Bushbuck's website, marketing copy and oversees our blog, The Campfire.
Outside of work, he's big on hiking and dabbles in surfing and bouldering. His favourite wilderness area in New Zealand is Nelson Lakes National Park, particularly the Blue Lake, home to the clearest known freshwater in the world.